Andrew also told me about his job teaching in a special school one summer in the early 60s. The school was buried deep in the countryside in south-east England and the pupils were both physically and mentally heavily disadvantaged. Many of them were so deformed that they were only ever allowed into the grounds of the institution, lest they alarm and appal a fragile public. There was, Andrew confided, even a cyclops child kept in a special wing reserved for the most severe cases. His own duties involved the close care of a group of disturbed and severely autistic children. He told me that, at meal times, one of his charges, served with a portion of meat, potatoes and veg, would start eating at the innermost edge of the plate and, working from left to right and back again in strictly parallel lines, move across the plate until it was completely clear and clean.
Round about the time that Andrew told me these things I met a hippie in a field in Bath, putting up a geodesic dome. The hippie told me that hidden deep in the jungle in South America there was a pyramid the size of the Great Pyramid, made out of pure cocaine.
Another story that gripped me in this period was told by a charming Danish alcoholic called Jan. When he was in the bin – either as a helper or a patient, I can’t remember – he made the acquaintance of Peter, a nine year old boy who never spoke. The boy had his own room and, one night at full moon, was seen to get out of bed and stand gazing at the window. He appeared to be completely immobile until someone noticed that he was almost imperceptibly turning in a semi-circle from left to right. The next morning Peter was still gazing at the sky but had scrawled some words on a piece of paper found at his feet. Just three words: PETER – MOON – SICK.
All these stories stuck in my mind. I still think about them. I think about the hippie story simply because it was total hippy bollocks of a very high order and easily exceeds the most hyperbolic stereotypes of the credulity that enfeebled some of the denizens of that wild but wishful time.
Andrew, on the other hand, was a thoroughly brilliant man who went on to become a Professor of Sanskrit, putting what little of the bollocks he had picked up behind him. I think the reason his tales and the Peter story stayed with me was more to do with the fact that, at the time, a kind of popular occult recovery was under way, in which certain sorts of narratives, previously confined to fairy tales and boys’ adventure stories, were being recycled as factual evidence of the fragility of scientific dogma. Cyclops children, jungle treasures, enigmatic lunatics and so forth were no longer clichés of fiction but emblems of a new spiritualised eclecticism.
One notorious source of particularly potent tales was a cult book titled ‘The Dawn of Magic’ (‘The Morning of the Magicians’ in the USA) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, first published in France in 1960 and subsequently, in its 1963 translation, eagerly studied by a constituency many of whom would eventually set down the defining terms of ‘The New Age’. What a page-turner! My hippy friends and I ploughed through lurid tales of Nazi mysticism, Fortean toads from the sky, pyramidology, the sex magic of Aleister Crowley, the occult systems of Gurdjieff, the origins of Atlantis and much anomalous else, all pitched to excite the early counterculture’s rejection of the depressant effects of rationalism. Andrew and I were so inspired that we visited the University Library at Cambridge and spent hours hunting down some of the esoteric primary texts from which the portentous pulp had been fermented.
Tall stories were an essential catalyst in the delirious convulsions of reason that cleared the undergrowth for the rise of the underground – it didn’t really matter that sometimes you couldn’t keep a straight face when being advised of the benefits of sleeping on a leyline – the telling was all and belief was not necessary. Hippies stood alongside yarning fishermen in this regard – the ones that got away serving to cement bonds between the ones who wanted to be together. So lavish were some of the stories – often delivered with a fierce earnestness designed to fend off the incredulous – that at times the raconteurs came to resemble spivs, tricksters and Bilkoesque wide boys defending the provenance of dodgy wrist-watches.
Andrew’s stories were all true, however. The one about the dining techniques of the autistic boy is a stark illustration of a disordered craving for order diametrically opposed to the exultant embrace of the fabulous that would gain the ascendant for several years to come.